Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Search of a Passionate Spirituality

As churches in this diocese have engaged in a self-evaluation process called Natural Church Development it has become clear that surveyed Anglicans feel that they lack a “passionate spirituality.” “Passionate spirituality” is one of several categories under which survey responses are collated and evaluated using this valuable assessment tool. While churches have high scores in a variety of other areas such as worship, small groups, leadership and effective structures. There has been a general concern that Anglicans across this diocese are not spiritually engaged. In the parish in which I serve as Assistant Curate, “passionate spirituality” has certainly been one of our weaker rankings. With parishes in our dioceses fairly consistently ranking “low” in “passionate spirituality,” a recent clergy conference was held with “passionate leadership” as its theme. The call has gone out to work on these results.

While tools such as the NCD survey are quite useful in taking the pulse of our congregations and determining strengths and weaknesses, I sometimes worry about the next steps. NCD suggests that we must use our strengths to build on our weaknesses. I can certainly see this as a valuable assumption. For example, if one of a church’s strength is in its small groups (be they social groups, women or men’s groups, parish meetings, or support groups), this strength can be used to build on a weakness such as a lack of passionate spirituality by introducing a spiritual component to such groups, particularly the social groups (i.e., opening with prayer, ending with compline, including a short bible study or spiritual reflection). This is one approach that we have taken at Holy Trinity and it has begun to bear some fruit. However, if we mistake the implementation of programs and new congregational methodologies for an encounter with the living God, we will continue to miss the mark when it comes to developing a passionate spiritual life. We will never work our way into a relationship with God simply because a relationship with God is built on our willingness to respond to the call of God in our lives, and ultimately, to make the decision to say “yes” to God, when the world around us encourages us otherwise.

In no way am I intending to disparage the many wonderful programs available to churches for Christian education and spiritual development, nor do I wish to denigrate any of the many excellent congregational development methodologies currently being applied (indeed as a bookseller I heartily recommended and endorsed many of these very programs and methodologies, and as an educator and priest I have used many of them and even developed some), but these are tools intended to assist in the proclamation of the Gospel, not replace it. A program is not and can never be the answer. The answer is an encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ.

Passionate spirituality is not something that can be “worked up.” We can spend time and money on programs, run them faithfully, and at the end of the day people may or may not feel that they have a deeper Christian faith than when they started. We can offer prayer at the beginning and ending of church meetings, we can make people feel more at home and welcome in our church buildings, we can effectively manage the finances, but unless people give themselves over to the Gospel, there can be no passionate spirituality.

I address this issue in my homily for Proper 18 (click here to view). The Christian life is about a series of decisions – decisions rooted in claiming and reaffirming the decisions made in our baptism. In one way, this is a solitary task. The community can uphold and support us, nurture us, teach us, love us, but cannot make our individual decisions for us. It is up to each of us to decide for ourselves if we will continue to walk in the way of Christ day-by-day. When faced with crises in our lives, when faced with angst over our own frailty, humanity, sinfulness, and mortality, we must ultimately make a decision. Will we decide that we can do it without God or do we turn to Christ who will work in us that we may grow into the image and likeness of the one who created us? If, after crisis upon crisis and decision upon decision we choose to walk alone rather than with Christ, if we choose ourselves over Christ, our ways over Christ’s ways, then we shall be a spiritually vacuous people and no amount of bible study or prayer, no program or church growth paradigm, will help us.

In each day of our lives, again and again, in the small things and in the grand things, in the details and in the epic crises that confront us, we are called to turn to Christ. We are called to risk losing all. We are called to look Jesus in the face and ask, “Who are you calling me to be in this decision that I need to make? Who do you want me to be as a result of this crisis?” We are called to put our whole trust in his grace and love and follow him (and not ourselves, our whims, our egos, our programs and paradigms) as Saviour and Lord. If we are willing to meet our Lord, it will not be under our own power that we grow in our spiritual life, but by his love and grace He shall make us a passionate people.

Copyright 2008 by The Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.